Fabled military leader, figurehead of the French revolution, Emperor of France, just some of the words that come to mind when we think of Napoleon. However, unbeknownst to many is that Napoleon was also an intellectual enthusiast and progressive reformer, the product of an enlightenment upbringing that formed the underlying motivation in both his domestic and international ventures.
Born 15 August 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte was brought up on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Under the control of Genoa before his birth, stories of Corsican nationalist leader Pasqua Paoli and his successful revolutionary movement proved to be an early inspiration for the young boy. Under Paoli’s rule, several progressive policies were pursued, from the reformation of the island’s legal and education system to the creation of a local printing press. In Il Babbù Napoleon saw a benevolent ruler – an influential figure whose image and ideals stuck with him for the rest of his life.
Whilst Paoli gave Napoleon an early insight into statesmanship, it was his own father – Carlo Buonaparte- who sparked his interest in literature and enlightenment thought, being himself a keen writer of Voltairean essays. This curiosity deepened during Napoleon's time at the royal military school of Brienne-le-Château to which he was admitted in April 1779. It was here that the adolescent Napoleon immersed himself in the work of European thinkers such as Diderot, as well as reading about historical leaders such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar whom he aspired to emulate. Books such as Dulaure’s ‘Critical History of the Nobility’ and Voltaire’s ‘Essais sur les moeurs’ (to name a few) were key in shaping both his social and political outlook.
After graduating from École Militaire in 1785 and following over a decade of military experience, Napoleon found himself commanding the Army of Egypt. It was during this campaign that he would showcase his commitment to progressive values. The three main reasons he gave to the French directory for the expedition was to access Asian markets for trade, establish a base in the region to undermine Britain’s commercial interests and to organize a French colony in Egypt. However, he also had an underlying intellectual motive…
Aware that one of his ancient heroes Alexander the Great had taken learned men on his campaigns to Egypt and beyond, Napoleon enlisted 167scholars (‘savants’) to join his army. Including several distinguished men of the day, the group was made up of geographers, historians, economists, and architects who were to study the region. Napoleon wanted this campaign to be of great significance and not merely a military mission within a revolutionary war. Subsequently, although the French would end up finding themselves at the mercy of the British in Egypt, to some extent Napoleon would have viewed the enterprise as successful, resulting in a 23-volume encyclopaedia Description de L’Egypte and arguably the creation of Egyptology as a field of study.
Alongside learning more about the region, Napoleon seized the opportunity to implement revolutionary changes once French forces arrived at Cairo, including the establishment of street lighting and cleaning, a tax system with lower impositions on the Egyptian fallaheen (peasantry), and the construction of modern plague hospitals. Additionally, the city’s 16 districts were to receive their own diwans (councils), replacing a previously inefficient feudalist system. It is also worth noting that none of these reforms were ordered by the French directory but were instead of Napoleon’s own initiative, highlighting the importance he placed upon societal developments.
Could Nile water be made more drinkable? What was the state of Egyptian education? Could Egypt produce gunpowder? These were some of the questions Napoleon wanted answering following the inauguration of the Institut d’Egypte - another of his creations. Serving as a scientific institute, it was divided into four sections – mathematics, physics, political economy and the arts- with its members focused on practical problems concerning these topics.
If anything, the Egyptian campaign showcased Napoleon’s ambitious and relentless nature, having implemented these reforms within a three-month period, he was a man desperate to follow in the footsteps of his childhood heroes.
Napoleon's innovative approach to governing in Egypt would soon be replicated in mainland France, most notably with the creation of the Napoleonic Codes. Through the unification of France’s 42 legal codes into a single system, the nation itself became more unified. Furthermore, the codes made liberal alterations to the law, legislating for total religious tolerance and freedom from arbitrary arrest.
Great strides were also made in the educational field, with the establishment of 45 lycées (state secondary schools) from May 1802. New subjects to be taught included ethics, mathematics, and physics, with Napoleon ensuring the church had limited influence over this new system to avoid ecclesiastical dominance like that during the Ancien Régime. These educational developments had a lasting impact, serving as a template for reformations in Spain and Holland. Original lycées such as Charlemagne remain among the best schools in France.
Of all our institutions public education is the most important. Everything depends on it, the present and the future.
Napoleon, at a public meeting in 1807
Despite all these progressive moves, at times Napoleon did embrace a more tyrannical approach, contradicting his enlightened ideals – a prime example being the reinstitution of slavery in the French colonies. Additionally, many of his policies – whilst improvements on previously rudimental systems – remained socially conservative. The Napoleonic codes were particularly discriminatory towards women. A man would be fined for committing adultery, whilst a woman could see two years’ imprisonment.
From a small coastal town on an island off the coast of Italy to the Emperor’s throne, Napoleon’s rise to power is a remarkable story. More remarkable though is how this proto-dictator with his autocratic instincts could also be such a champion of enlightenment values - a true seeker of innovation and advancement.